If you find yourself driving along highway 61 south of Blytheville, you might catch this in the corner of your eye. Today it just looks like some fancy birdbaths posted in a field, but when they were new, these parabolic reflectors were part of the world's largest photovoltaic array, and they helped heat and power the Mississippi County Community College. These six reflectors and the framework for the original solar array prototype have been retained on exhibit on the grounds of the college. 264 other reflectors and their support structures were sold as scrap to local dealers about five years ago.
So how is it that this community college in this rural area far from the aerospace industry came to play host to this cutting edge technological experiment? And in the same breath let's ask, now that solar electrical production is becoming economically practical, why was it discarded here where it was built right into the physical plant's design?
In 1974 the voters of Mississippi County in northeast Arkansas voted a three mill tax for the construction of a campus so the local kids could get an inexpensive college education close to home. In August of 1975 classes began for 800 students in the old Sudbury Elementary School. In 1976, the Board of Directors bought 80 acres on which to build the new campus.
In 1976 Jimmy Carter was elected president. The Arabs were cutting off our oil supply. Energy prices were rising. Gasoline was in short supply. The government decided to fund experimental alternative energy projects through the Energy Resource Development Administration (ERDA). Arkansas' national politicians approached college president Dr. Harry Smith with the idea of transforming MCCC into a pilot energy project. Not only was the pursuit of energy independence the environmentally enlightened and patriotic thing to do, but getting a big federal project in your district made for good conversation come election time. Smith was all for it. He hoped that this high tech project would speed up his school's accreditation process. He expected the international attention drawn by this project would be good for the region. He expected that solar technology courses attending the experiment would make his college a recruiting ground for high tech companies and might attract financial support from those companies. You couldn't swing a cat without getting fur all over a synergy.
In February of 1977, Senator John McClellan, who had been lobbying for the project, announced that college officials would meet with ERDA, who had agreed to fund a feasibility study for a solar generator that would generate 500 kilowatts. The Little Rock architectural firm of Cromwell, Neyland, Truemper, Levy and Gatchell would design the the administrative and academic buildings. Honeywell would design the heat exchange and energy components. Another group called Total Energy Applications/Management (TEAM) would also be involved. TEAM was a Washington-and-Little-Rock-based consulting firm that coordinated the project, accepted and reviewed bids, dealt with government agencies and so on.
At the end of April, Vice President Mondale announced that ERDA would put up $5.8M to go with the $2.5M in local money. The local money would go for the campus. The federal money would go for the solar power features. President Smith was surprised at the size of the grant. They had asked for $4.5M. He was further surprised to learn that the Carter administration planned this to be an important showcase and proving ground for solar energy technologies.
Something happened I haven't figured out yet. Somewhere between July and August of 1977, ERDA upped the grant money from $5.8M to $6.3M. The only reason I found in the papers was that there were delays due to contractors being unable to bid within budget, but since the extra money appeared before the first round of bidding, I'm not sure that's the real reason.
After appropriations came budgeting. If you went to a bank to get the money to build something like this on your own, you'd first cost things out and then ask for the money to cover it. But government procedures sometimes serve motives other than those stated, especially when the administration wants to be percieved as responding proactively to a crisis. In this case President Carter needed to spread some cash to look like he was doing something about the Arab Oil Embargo, so the cash and the news stories came first and the details followed on.
From the point of view of the locals, the most important of the follow-on details was the distribution of the millions. It's easy to estimate the cost of building a two-bedroom house because thousands are built every year. You can find one built on a plan similar to yours and be pretty sure the price will be in the ballpark and the water and heat and AC and electricity is all going to work as advertised. But this solar stuff was all new. Although some of the technology was open source, a lot of the components had never been combined or applied on this scale. For example, General Engineering Laboratory (GEL) of Durham, NC was to design energy storage in the form of iron redox batteries with a gel electrolyte medium. I called up Bill Ball at Stellar Sun solar energy shop in Little Rock. (You might remember him as the guy who rebuilt the water wheel at Dogpatch.) I asked him what an iron redox batttery is and why we would want one and why I couldn't find anybody selling them on the internet. I could only find a very few technical papers and references. Apparently they're not commercially viable.
Iron redox batteries are a kind of elusive holy grail of the green energy advocates. In discussions on the topic the words "in theory" come up a lot. The technology is extremely promising, in theory. The components are not at all exotic or toxic, in theory, gelatin, water, iron, charcoal. They are infinitely rechargeable and can be totally discharged without damage, again, in theory.
Lead acid batteries, like your car battery, will wear out after so many thousands of discharges and recharges. As dissolved ions go back and forth from anode to cathode and back again, a few of them will combine with other ions or dissolved oxygen and precipitate out of solution. After a few years all the metal in the plates in your battery will end up as mud in the bottom of the battery case. Iron redox (reduction/oxidation) batteries swap electrons riding dissolved gases in solution rather than dissolved mineral ions, so the electrodes don't crumble to mud. So in theory an iron redox battery can be discharged and recharged forever. It doesn't wear out with normal use. The technology is well understood, since it was one of the earliest battery designs and was sometimes used to power telegraphs and railroad signals in the last century. Another advantage of iron redox batteries is safety. No lead. No acid. Think of how much lead and acid you'd have to have on hand to store the power of a 500 kilowatt station. Then think of the place as being packed with college students and you can see you're asking for trouble with conventional batteries.
The downside of the iron redox battery is that to store a little power you have to use a big honking battery. An iron redox battery strong enough to start your car might not fit in your car. Of course if you're storing energy for an immobile facility and you've got lots of basement space, size and weight are not such a problem.
All the excitement over iron redox batteries was rendered moot when it became clear that the project would proceed under plan B, not plan A.
The original proposal sent by ERDA to the feasibility guys at Oak Ridge was for an array that would generate 500 kilowatts at noon on a clear day. The feasibility guys at Oak Ridge informed ERDA that this proposal was overly optimistic for the existing technology, and they presented two more modest sets of goals. Plan A proposed a plant generating 240 usable (that's AFTER loss due to circuitry and conversion from DC to AC) kilowatts at peak solar conversion accompanied by 2 megawatt hours of storage. A rough translation: your generating plant creates a quarter megawatt at noon on a sunny day and you can store about ten hours' worth of juice in your batteries.
Plan B was like plan A with the following changes: 1) the 240 kilowatts could be measured before, instead of after, loss due to inversion and circuitry. Sort of the way corporations report EBITDA as if they were real earnings. And 2) instead of 10 hours worth of battery power the specs would allow a scaled-down battery system large enough to smooth out the variations in energy production due to things like passing clouds. So there was some incentive to move to Plan B, officially known as "Option II." The technical goals were easier to reach, and Mr. Ahearn of TEAM intimated that if all bids were over budget, ERDA might come up with some more cash.
The project managers were to scrap Plan A and shift to Plan B if and only if none of the contractors submitted a bid lower than the amount budgeted for construction of the power plant.
Honeywell designed the prototype solar panel and delivered it to Blytheville for a bit under $700,000. At right is a picture of the remains right where it was originally installed as a teaching aid. That's the way of the world with cutting-edge technology. One day you're worth two-thirds of a million bucks. In the blink of an eye you're a parrot perch. Honeywell estimated the price of the whole power plant at $1.9M. That line item in the budget was set at $1,491,501 and alternate bids were solicited.
In August of 1978 three bids were submitted. All three overshot by a mile. The lowest was $3.6M. Costs had to be cut, and that meant going to the Option II specifications and that meant no iron redox batteries. Some of the other cost cutting measures might eventually have contributed to the project's early end. For one thing, the prototype unit was a big platter that pointed the solar cells flat toward the sunlight. The cells were brand new technology at the time and had to be made by hand. They were the single most expensive line item. It was reasoned that if you could put thirty times the sunlight on one cell it was equivalent to putting that much sunlight on thirty individual cells. That's why the prototype is flat and the units eventually installed have these parabolic reflectors. The solar cells, 62,000 of them, were aligned in double rows above the mirrored surfaces facing down at the reflectors rather than up at the sun.
The original designs called for two triangular supports, one at each end of each 20-foot section. The design you see above places a single vertical I-beam every 20 feet in a three section array. The structure that holds the gear off the ground requires less than half the materials originally specified. If you've got 270 sections, that adds up. The original design called for each section to have its own automatic tracking mechanism. To save money sections were ganged together so that one motor and one set of sensors would orient six reflectors. A dollar here a dollar there.
Twenty-fve years later I get to play Monday morning quarterback.
Since all the cells in a panel are hooked to each other, they affect each other's performace; and the best way for a solar panel to work is with equal illumination on all the cells. The best way to ruin them is with the most unequal illumination. When you go shopping for solar panels you'll read warnings about hard shadows and you'll void your warranty if you use mirrors or magnifiers to intensify the sunlight. (Oh, sure, we know that NOW.) So using parabolic mirrors to pound maximum sunlight into your panels only creates a greater potential for hotter hotspots. Of course, as long as your mirrors are perfectly aligned and meticulously oriented you might avoid trouble.
While we have the phrase "perfectly aligned and meticulously oriented" fresh in our minds, take a drive on a country road in Mississippi County, or anywhere in the delta for that matter. Try to find a long, straight row of utility poles. You can't, can you? Visitors touring the state take this as evidence of our technological backwardness. "Heck, them Arkies cain't even plumb a telephone pole." I've watched crews putting in utility lines and I swear they're straight when they go in. I'll drive past the same spot in a year or two and those things are pointed all over the sky.
The ground in that river delta moves. Anything you plant in it is actually floating on it. When you pour a slab to support a house, that's actually a raft. If you can find a straight tombstone in a delta graveyard, you can bet there are fresh flowers on it. So those simple I-beam supports substituted for the more complex triangular framwork might behave like those utility poles and end up leaning three or four degrees this way or that. If after a couple of years one post at the end of one section leans three degrees east and the one at the other end leans three degrees west, you're putting six degrees of torsion on a precision instrument. It might not be noticeable to the naked eye, but if the focal point of that parabola varies two inches along the length of that fourteen-foot panel, then you've got cold spots and hot spots and with solar panels, that's something you don't want. You're going to reduce efficiency and damage your solar cells. (Oh, sure, we know that NOW.)
Compounding the problem is the fact that the sensors and tracking mechanism that point the twisted panel at the sun might be getting its orienting input from another section entirely, one that's not twisted, or even one that's torsioned in the opposite direction. The austerity measure of using one tracking mechanism to orient six reflectors allows one distorted section to maladjust the rest.
Of course these problems were not so evident at the time. One could argue that this was an experiment, and the purpose of the experiment was to reveal flaws in the design so they could be corrected. Fair enough.
Because there was no significant battery storage in Option II, they had to hook the campus up to the grid. They cut a deal with ArkMo power company to plug in and buy and sell power to the utility at the going rate. In effect, ArkMo became a utility banker for the school. Electrons would be deposited during generation and could be withdrawn at night and on cloudy days. That going rate was 2.197 cents per kilowatt hour, or 1.575 cents, depending on which paper you read. In 1977 the cost of generating solar power over the 25-year expected life of the equipment was estimated at 11 cents per kilowatt hour. Of course, ArkMo is not a charity and this arrangement was a non-standard service and the school was likely at times to use more power than it generated, so the school paid ArkMo a "demand charge" of $332 a month, which included 100 kilowatt hours. That's $3.32 per kilowatt hour. Additional kilowatt hours could then be demanded from ArkMo at $1.55 each.
Again we remind ourselves that the desired product of an experiment is knowledge and experience, not dollars and kilowatts. Even so, this arrangement with the public utility insured that there would be a predictable perpetual expense that the college would not have if the design could have provided true energy independence. Add this to all the other little burdens undertaken in the name of frugality, and you find yourself trying to run a race with one foot in a bucket. All these modifications increased the probabability of failure.
"Always with the negative waves, Moriarity!" Okay, let's go to happier times. Eventually Solar Kinetics of Dallas bid just over $1.1M to build the solar collector system and got the contract. For about a year Blytheville, Arkansas was the center of the solar energy universe.
In April of 1980 the spankin'-new campus was host to the Mid South Energy Expo '80. Here's what it looked that new campus looked like. This is a scan of a post card given to me by Dean Gifford of Northeast Arkansas Community College, as MCCC is called today. The solar farm (270 reflectors pounding 30X magnification sunlight into 62,000 cells) is at the upper right margin of the picture. The back of the post card boasts of iron redox storage batteries, but no mention is made of them in the college's publication "A Solar Experiment."
Although the solar electric system attracted all the attention, the real energy-saving advances were displayed in the landscaping and architecture. Note the rows of deciduous trees along the south-facing walls. They provide shade in summer but drop their leaves in winter allowing the sun to heat those walls when heat is needed. Every surface is reflective and white where direct sunlight is overly plentiful and buff and absorptive where it is rarer. The high arched glass concourse is planted with trees to freshen and cool the air inside as well as to absorb noise. Computer controlled shades regulate the sunlight and tweak the air currents inside.
Overhangs above south-facing windows shade the glass in summer but allow sunlight to penetrate when the sun hangs low in the southern sky during the winter months. Here's the picture of the Honeywell prototype again. Behind it you can see the deciduous trees and the window-shading overhangs. Steeply angled skylights facing north allow only diffused light to enter the larger common areas. The exterior skin of the building is made of aluminum and expanded polystyrene sandwich panels.
The west-facing walls are cast-in-place concrete. They act as a thermal mass, storing heat from the afternoon sun and re-radiating it in the evening. Spaces likely to be used in the evenings are arranged along these west-facing walls to make use of that heat.
If you've been wondering what happened to the rest of the $6.3M, that left over after spending only $1.14M on the solar array and the $0.7M on the Honeywell prototype, this is it. The extra expenditures went to design and incorporate the solar aspects of the brick and mortar facilities. If you want a peek into the soul of Arkansas, this is a pretty good porthole. The town gets a big grant for a solar campus. By them the solar power generation experiment is just pie-in-the-sky Buck Rogers vegetarian liberal do-gooder snake-oil, more political than practical, like the manned lunar missions. Not only that, it's set up to lose money in return for data. The less we spend on it and the sooner we get shed of it the better. The building and grounds, however, are things they regard as valuable and that's where they put most of their cash. Land and property have a status in the Arkansas psyche that solar experiments do not enjoy. Without the photogenic solar electric array, however, we don't get the grant.
I don't mean to suggest anybody intentionally scuttled the project. I do mean to suggest they spent the grant money on what they thought was really valuable and scrimped on what they thought was not really valuable. The prophecy fulfilled itself when the generating project failed after only three years. The campus is still there, and that's what Mississippi County wanted to begin with. I can't argue that they were imprudent in their allocations, either. Under the best conditions, the electricity generated by the solar array would never have paid for itself in the 25-year estimated life of the equipment, and the energy-saving features built into the campus buildings will go on saving money for a hundred years or more.
Arkansans don't trust innovation. If they haven't seen something before, it might be a Yankee trick.
Energy Expo '80 was prepared to entertain and educate 35,000 to 50,000 visitors. There were 71 exhibitors including government agencies, energy companies, stove manufacturers, advocates for wind power, coal power, gasohol, biofuels and solar power. Project coordinator Beverly Nelson promised "handouts galore." There were 13 consumer workshops offered on subjects ranging from energy conscious driving tips to one titled "Energy and the Church" which explored the responsibility of the church in an energy crisis.
Fate threw a huge wet blanket on the Expo. Not only did the weather turn cold and rainy, but eight G.I.'s died in an aborted attempt to rescue hostages held in Iran just before the Expo opened. The actual attendance on opening day was 5,000 to 6,000. Everything was tainted by the bad news. Politicians scrapped their upbeat technology-of-tomorrow speeches and used their time to rail against Iran. Congressman Bill Alexander declined to discuss energy policy saying, "Our first need is to defend our country from the challenge of foreign powers." Donald Elmer, the exhibitor from the Department of Energy put a timely geopolitical spin on the necessity of alternative energy. He said, "We're saying parents can have their kids working around the greenhouse or cuttting wood for the stove rather than parachuting into the mideast to secure oil fields."
That was over 24 years ago.
Times changed. Administrations changed. Priorities changed.
The Department of Energy had an informal agreement to provide $200,000 a year for five years for maintenance and operations, but the Reagan administration's funding cuts ended that.
The amount of energy generated had never saved the school more than a couple of thousand dollars a year. While the array provided 90% of the school's power at peak times, generation dropped sharply with even moderate cloud cover. As mentioned above there were problems with the tracking and focusing mechanisms such that the system designed to provide a peak 320 kilowatts never made more than 110 and the expensive handmade solar cells burned out frequently. In October of 1983 the photovoltaic experiment was ended. In December of 1983 Dr. John Sullins was named president of the University, replacing Harry Smith.
In 1981 the Saudis started building at a desalination plant in Jeddah a photovoltaic array that would replace this one as the world's largest. According to then college president Smith, Saudi engineers had spent considerable time in Blytheville studying the MCCC system. The U.S. government helped fund the Saudi project, too.
Blytheville Courier News | 12Feb77 1A:1, 30Apr77 1A:1, 11Jul77 1A:1, 13Jul77 1A:1, 19Aug77, 21Aug78 1A:6, 05Dec78 1A:1, 07Dec78 1A:6, 03Apr79 1A:2, 22Mar79 1A:2, 26Apr80, 21Apr80 special section "Mid South Energy Expo"
Personal Communication, Chris Benson (Arkansas Energy Office) 6/25/04, Bill Ball (Stellar Sun) 6/25/04; Ralph Hill (Physical Plant Manager, Northeast Arkansas College) 6/28/04.
Arkansas Democrat/Gazette (day/Mon/yr pageSEC:col) 04Jan75 3A:1, 19Feb75 16A:6, 30Jun75 16A:3, 24Sep75 1B:4, 20Jan76 8A:6, 22Jan7610A:3, 13Feb76 23A:7. 31Jul76 14A:4, 10Feb77 1B:2, 6Mar77 22A:1, 30Apr77 1A:5, 1May77 10A:6, 3May77 6A:1, 13Jul77 15A:1, 20Aug77 1A:6, 30Sep77 2A:4, 13Nov77 1A:4, 21Jun78 10C:5, 20Aug78 4A:1, 7Dec78 10A:7, 22Mar79 17A:7, 3Apr794A:2, 20Apr80 1F:4, 26Apr806C:7, 26Oct82 5A:4, 8May83 A19:5, 16Jun84 B01:1.
Deaver, F. K., M. M. Johnson, Tom Pugh, Ray Snowden, W. D. Turner, J. D. Wall, J. G. Williams, J. R.Yeargan; Subcontractor Final Report #4 to DOE Grant #EG-77-G-05-5565.
Mississippi County Community College, A Solar Experiment, no author or pub. date. some time afer 1982.